Marvin Lewis was the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 1996 when the franchise set its foundation with the drafting of offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
Year after year, he watched Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff add to the team's nucleus through the NFL draft, finding impact players early and overlooked talent late, and complimenting the draft class with high upside undrafted free agents.
"My experience in Baltimore allowed me to go look at the players and make sure that the guys met the standard I thought was important, which mainly, is to have a high motor and have the ability to bend their knees and make football plays," Lewis said. "I think everybody there did a good job of bringing all the thoughts and ideas together, and obviously, making great decisions."
Lewis has been the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals for 11 seasons, a period that has seen the formerly downtrodden franchise emerge as perennial playoff contenders, thanks to the same team-building blueprint that has worked so well for the Ravens.
The combination of smart draft picks and savvy roster decisions has the Bengals (6-3) in first place in the AFC North, looking down at the Ravens (3-5) and Pittsburgh Steelers (2-6), the two teams that have dominated the division for much of the last decade. On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Bengals have a chance to deal another blow to the Ravens' sagging playoff hopes and solidify their standing as the elite team in the division.
"The Ravens have been one of the best teams in this division for a while," Bengals third-year quarterback Andy Dalton said. "Any time you can go against teams like they've had, and see where you're at, and see what kind of team that you've got, it is a good measuring stick just to see where we're at as a team. This is a big game for us, so we've got to come out and play our best."
For the Ravens, a loss would give them four straight defeats for the first time since 2007, the final year of Brian Billick's tenure as coach, and put a sixth-straight playoff berth on life support. It would also leave them 3 1/2 games behind the Bengals with seven games to play, and all but end any realistic shot at a third straight AFC North title.
The Ravens have long considered the Bengals worthy adversaries in the AFC North, though they've finished lower than Cincinnati in the division standings just three times since 2002. With the way this season has shaken out, it's fair to question whether the balance of power in the division has shifted for the foreseeable future.
"The Bengals have been extremely talented ever since we've been here," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who is 6-4 against Cincinnati since he was hired before the 2008 season. "They've done a great job with the draft. They've always got playmakers on both sides of the ball. So, that's an evolution that has been going on. I don't think they are any more dangerous than they were last year, the year before or the year before that, and they've been plenty dangerous. Their quarterback is playing well. They've always been a mauling offensive line. So, that's what we are dealing with."
The Bengals have made two consecutive playoff berths and a third in a row would represent a franchise first. They are 13-4 in their past 17 regular-season games, while the Ravens are 8-9 during that same stretch. However, the Ravens got hot last season and continued their postseason progression by winning Super Bowl XLVII in February.
The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season when Sam Wyche was their head coach and former Maryland standout Boomer Esiason was their quarterback. Their 22-season drought without a playoff victory is the longest streak of its kind in the NFL.
But a lack of playoff success is pretty much all that's left that connects the currently Bengals to their rocky past and a time when they were once mockingly referred to as "the Bungles." The depth of talent that Cincinnati has assembled is certainly no laughing matter for the opposition.
"They just have playmakers all over the field," Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata said.
The Bengals' roster transformation started after a 4-12 campaign in 2010 that included 10 consecutive losses. Following the season, quarterback Carson Palmer asked for a trade, and he was ultimately sent to the Oakland Raiders for two draft picks. Wide receiver Chad Johnson, a lightning rod for controversy, was traded to the New England Patriots. Established veterans like Terrell Owens, Dhani Jones and Roy Williams were not re-signed as the Bengals committed to going with younger players.
"They took a chance, letting some of the older guys go and starting to develop some of their younger draft picks," said Ravens safety Jeromy Miles, who played with the Bengals from 2010 until earlier this season when he was claimed off waivers by Baltimore. "It seems like all those draft picks in these last couple of years have really come into their own. They've got a lot of young and developing guys."
Like the Ravens did in 2008 with the selection of quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice with their first two picks, the Bengals found the new center pieces of their offense in the 2011 draft. With their first two picks, the Bengals grabbed wide receiver A.J. Green, who currently leads the NFL with 862 receiving yards, and Dalton, who is fourth in the NFL with 2,587 passing yards.
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard was a second-round pick in April after the Bengals took athletic tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round and paired him with Jermaine Gresham, a first-round pick in 2010. Bookend pass rushers Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap were second-round picks in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
The Bengals have done well in the middle-to-late rounds as well. Wide receiver Marvin Jones, who has eight touchdowns this season, was a fifth-round pick last year. Geno Atkins, arguably the best defensive tackle in football who recently tore his anterior cruciate ligament, was a fourth-round selection in 2010. Second-year weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict was added as an undrafted free agent, and he's been the team's top tackler for the past two years.
Overall, 28 of the 53 players on the Bengals' active roster were draft picks by the team and another five players were signed as undrafted free agents. Those numbers are similar to the Ravens, who have 31 of their original draft picks and nine undrafted free agents on their roster.
"You have a bunch of young guys that are hungry and listening, and Coach Lewis is doing a good job of getting everybody to buy in," said former NFL offensive lineman Bobbie Williams, who played with the Bengals from 2004 to 2011 before finishing his career last season with the Ravens. "Guys want to work hard, and they want to win. Just talking with people down there, they say the locker room has totally changed. You've got your big stars, like A.J. Green, who are humble and aren't seeking the spotlight and attention. They come to work with a lunch pail and a hard hat, and that's what it takes."
The Bengals have also made sure the young players have accomplished veterans around them. They've rewarded former draft picks like Atkins, Dunlap, Leon Hall, Andre Smith and Rey Maualuga with second contracts, choosing to spend their money on their own players while mostly eschewing signing big-ticket free agents. Veteran free-agent additions like BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Terence Newman and James Harrison have all been added on lesser deals.
The depth has loomed large as the Bengals cope with the season-ending injuries to Hall and Atkins, and the extended absence of Maualuga.
"That's important at every single spot, how important it is in making sure you're backed up with good depth and good young guys," Lewis said. "It's important that you keep working hard at that."